The Hong Kong Arts Festival has the knack of choosing high quality opera productions which, although not necessarily the best-known in the genre, make for truly enjoyable experiences. Compared with Bolshoi Opera’s production of The Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov last year, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, a revival of Sylvano Bussoti’s creation for Teatro Regio Torino in the late 1970s, is less of a resounding success.

<i>Simon</i> <i>Boccanegra</i> at Teatro Regio Torino © Ramella Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino
Simon Boccanegra at Teatro Regio Torino
© Ramella Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino
This dark, gloomy tale of political intrigue and its collateral damage for the protagonists – even Verdi himself describes it as “too sad and desolate” – doesn’t have many endearing arias. The plot is complicated and if you haven’t had the chance at least to glance at the synopsis before the house lights dim it’s easy to feel lost at some stage. Nevertheless, there is enough meat on the bone for a good opera company to chew on.

One-time pirate Simon Boccanegra is elected Doge in Genoa. He tries to persuade his aristocratic rival, Jacopo Fiesco, to allow him to marry his daughter Maria. Yet it turns out that Maria has mysteriously died, and Fiesco will reconcile with Boccanegra only if he hands over the daughter he has had with Maria. Unfortunately, the young girl has disappeared.

Fast-forwarding to 25 years later, Amelia Grimaldi is in love with Gabriele Adorno and finds out that she is Boccanegra’s daughter. With this discovery, the Doge changes his mind about letting plebeian power-broker Paolo marry Amelia. As Paolo plots to kidnap her, Adorno kills one of the culprits but hints at a powerful mastermind behind the scheme. The Doge, under suspicion himself but guessing that the mastermind is Paolo, cunningly asks Paolo to join him in a curse on whoever is behind the kidnap. In retaliation, Paolo poisons Boccanegra’s jug of water. As the Doge reels from the after effects of the poisoned water, Adorno tries to kill him, at which point Amelia tells him about the Doge being her father.

<i>Simon</i> <i>Boccanegra</i> at Teatro Regio Torino © Ramella Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino
Simon Boccanegra at Teatro Regio Torino
© Ramella Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino
As the rebellion of the patricians is put down, Bocannegra reveals Amelia’s true identity as his daughter and reconciles with his erstwhile rival Fiesco, who is disguised as Amelia’s guardian but is also her grandfather. Boccanegra dies after appointing Adorno Doge.

Erika Grimaldi, as the leading female protagonist Amelia, is a strong and forceful soprano. She tries hard to make the role come alive as the principal link between Boccanegra, Fiesco and Adorno. Yet her shrill and sometimes grating delivery lacks the tenderness to do the job, and she ends up being the weak link, especially when paired with Boccanegra or Adorno. Her entry in Act I, “Come in quest’ora bruna”, the role’s usual calling card, was hardly noticeable.

It’s reasonable to expect that Fiesco, as an aristocrat, may be cold and aloof, but Michele Pertusi’s portrayal was wooden. His projection was sometimes muted and was even drowned by the lower strings in the orchestra in his famous “Il lacerato spirito” in the Prologue, through no fault of the conductor.

Roberto Frontali put in a credible performance as Boccanegra, a wily politician with a big heart. Sonorous, smooth and warm, his voice was just right for the part, emphatic where it needs to be, authoritative in the Council Chamber scene, and full of pathos as he lay dying in Act III. He should take credit for shoring up an otherwise patchy vocal offering in the production.

<i>Simon</i> <i>Boccanegra</i> at Teatro Regio Torino © Ramella Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino
Simon Boccanegra at Teatro Regio Torino
© Ramella Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino
The real surprise was Giorgio Berrugi’s Adorno. The expressiveness of his silky voice matched his acting. His portrayal of Adorno was passionate, varied and compelling, with delightful lyricism in “Sento avvampar nell’anima”.

Sylvano Bussotti’s set is simple but effective, consisting of a series of hung meshes painted to give a three-dimensional effect of a castle. A constant projection of ocean waves in the cyclorama at the back is a reminder of the maritime environment of Genoa. On the other hand, the costumes are sumptuous, colourful and opulent. Bocannegra goes through several costume changes that reflect the mood of the action, from simple garb made of rough material before his election, to a shiny gown in the Council Chamber scene, and crimson pyjama-like robe at the end.

Roberto Abbado and the Teatro Regio Torino orchestra delivered impeccable musical support to the action on stage. The warm and luscious tone of the strings brought evocative colour to the sombre tale. Instrumental layers were well differentiated, and while the brass intensified the action, the woodwinds gave the emotional moments a delicate touch. Rarely have I noticed the orchestra so much in an opera.